I happen to hold Kanye West in high esteem. He’s a very talented producer and rapper who regularly subverts the genre of Hip Hop whilst still selling records – some feat in urban music. Recently a friend of mine took major umbrage to this and made the comment... “He’s sh*t. All new music is sh*t. There are no great artists any more, in any genres”.
Forgetting Kanye, Hip Hop and my mate, this is a shockingly common opinion which is usually followed closely by one of the following...
“Kids listen to boll*cks these days.”
“X Factor is ruining music; the industry is f*cked.”
“There’s no one like Prince, MJ, Rick James, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, Elvis, blah, blah, blah.”
Most of these points are somewhat valid, but to say there are no greats anymore is extremely naive.
While we’re not living like the Jetsons, the industry is wildly different to the 60s/70s/80s and people must take this into account when judging artists. There have been three key changes: The Media, The Public and The Machine.
In the past if you had talent the world only knew about you through your talent – crazy, I know!
You were 100% in control of when and how the public perceived you. Take someone like Prince; the public only knew him through his music, the records they owned and the time they were lucky enough to see him in concert. This control meant that his image could be carefully managed and he became an icon. Granted, he had incredible talent and charisma, but no more than many musicians have now.
Would David Bowie have been allowed to cultivate his weird, other-worldly Ziggy Stardust image if he appeared in 2012? Of course not!
In those times being a star carried some serious power with it. You were mysterious. You were not one of us. Would David Bowie have been allowed to cultivate his weird, other-worldly Ziggy Stardust image if he appeared in 2012? Of course not! Back then people couldn’t just go online and find out every detail about your real life.
This isn’t even that long ago. I remember hearing a Master P song on Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 show 14 years ago, when I was 13. Granted, the song was no masterpiece but I was gobsmacked; the whole vibe, slang and attitude was so exciting and different. I didn’t have access to the internet and it wasn't nearly as advanced as it is now, so there was nowhere I could find out more about him, even what he looked like. Media vultures, like TMZ, that trade in undermining artists and securing photos of famous corpses didn’t exist, so rather than today’s, “check this out, it’s a YouTube clip of him tripping over on stage. what a d*ck”, I was left with the feeling that he was a superhero. Thus I judged every bit of his work in a certain way.
The problem is that the second you don’t 100% believe in what an artist is singing/rapping about the whole experience is destroyed. Now you may say that other performers go through the same pressures but this is simply not true. Taking actors as an example, there are big differences: it is understood that actors are playing a role so the real them doesn’t matter too much and the way a film is constructed (supporting casts, makeup and special effects) and consumed (often in isolation to distraction) is much more immersive, therefore it is easier to suspend disbelief.
The reason The Weeknd garnered such excitement recently is because no one really knew what he looked like for his first 3 mixtapes. It was impossible to find out any details on him, apart from the fact he liked to name drop Toronto. It meant that his music could be consumed without any preconceptions; the purest way.
It is worth mentioning that The Weeknd was in the lucky position where through being friends with Drake all it took was a tweet from Drake to his 7 million followers for people to be aware of his music. Not all artists are afforded this luxury and therefore have to put themselves ‘out there’ in order to garner any buzz in the first place.
The reason The Weeknd garnered such excitement recently is because no one really knew what he looked like for his first 3 mixtapes.
Even when artists do put themselves out there, they are not always welcomed with open arms. This brings us to...
We are jaded, cynical, have seen it all before... and then sold the tour t-shirt on eBay.
We know too much. We know too much about the artists and we know too much about how the industry works. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Web 2.0 has given us the ability to share information easily whilst being anonymous, if we want to be. Rather than this anonymity making it easier for people to hide, it has curiously led to the rise of the whistleblower as we saw with the Super Injuction scandals and Wikileaks. Now, if you are not transparent you will soon get found out.
As such we expect 100% transparency from our artists and if we don’t get it, we lash out and destroy them by branding them fake. The problem is that the more transparent they become, the more we realise that they are just as normal as us and it takes the excitement away from them and ultimately their music. It leaves our artists trying to walk a ridiculous line where we want them to be real, but not too real because it’s not appealing or sexy. Who wants to hear Graham from Accounts on a song?
we expect 100% transparency from our artists and if we don’t get it, we lash out and destroy them by branding them fake
Take the example of an artist going to the shops.
- They go shopping dressed down in a tracksuit... they get slated.
- So next time they go dressed up to go to the shops... they’re trying too hard.
- They then decide to get someone to do their shopping... they’re snooty.
What the f*ck are they supposed to do?
Rappers get it particularly hard. Their music is supposed to represent the struggle. As soon as they make it, they are no longer struggling. What do they do? Keep making underdog music even though they’re out of that situation? Make celebratory music only to then be told they’re not representing their people? Stay in the hood in order to keep it ‘real’ and get taken down by the crab-in-a-bucket mentality?
When Jay Z hit the big time in the late 90s he summed up the dichotomy with this couplet from ‘Streets Is Watching’:
"If I shoot you I’m brainless, if you shoot me you’re famous, what’s a ni**a to do?’
The other major issue with this transparency is that if you break down the process of creating art, you lose the magic; like having to explain a joke. In the 90s MTV started showing the making of music videos. This was an incredible insight into artists and the way projects are put together. This access is great in small doses but now we are privy to absolutely everything, all of the time; from how people are signed, to the deals they are signed to, to the way the album was recorded, to the way it was marketed, to the brands that have been involved, to the sales strategy... it gets draining! Sure, you can ignore all of this, but this info is everywhere.
Not only are we sick of the sight of our current artists, but we as humans have a tendency for nostalgia and thus we put our modern day artists up against the greats from the past in a fight they can never win.
“All bands these days are manufactured!”
Ermmm, what about most of the Motown acts?
“Today’s artists never write their own music”
Ermmm, what about Elvis?
There is no huge difference between the artists of different eras: there are always going to be greats, there are always going to be awful groups that get very popular and there are always going to be talented people that never get their break. Nothing has changed; it’s just that musicians are under more pressure than ever before. Which brings us to the next section...
So presumably record labels are railing against this media saturation in order to keep their products sacred? No!
‘What? Give her lead single away on the back of Coco Pops? With no charge to us? Idiots! Yes, of course we’ll do it’.
Once something starts making money for a business, the next natural step is to trim the fat in the hope of creating a super-sleek behemoth. Rather than fighting against this 24/7 media intrusion, the music industry has readily embraced it as a cost cutting device. Why buy primetime TV ads when you can have your artist interviewed on primetime TV programmes that then get commented about on Twitter and syndicated ad-nauseum on Youtube?
"If I see Rihanna on a chat show one more time I swear to god I’ll....’
And it is not only established artists that are affected by this; the newer ones really have a tough time.
These days you cannot be great at something without becoming famous overnight. Boohoohoo! Whenever you hear a new artist say they don’t want to be famous, it often smacks of insincerity but for many it’s true. There’s an interview with the rapper Giggs where the interviewer comments on how shy he is and how he’s not good in interviews. He says he doesn’t want any of this, he just wants to rap and make a living without ‘all the sh*t that comes with it’. But many people assume that the person is famous because they want to be famous... and have willingly sold their soul, accepting all the sh*t that comes with fame.
Why buy primetime TV ads when you can have your artist interviewed on primetime TV programmes that then get commented about on Twitter and syndicated ad-nauseum on Youtube?
The biggest issue is that it’s incredibly hard to be famous and escape with any credibility whilst being pulled apart by the media and internet forums. Genuinely talented people become undervalued and to an extent looked down upon because they're tarred with the ‘celeb’ brush, appearing in magazines whether they like it or not.
The second problem for newbies is that they are often thrust into the limelight by the short termist record labels before they are ever ready. We saw a situation with Azealia Banks where her single ‘212’ got so big that she was booked onto a world tour. The only slight issue being that she was so new to the industry that she only had 2 or 3 songs that she would be able to perform! Her team sensibly pulled the plug on the world tour and have had her cooped up in a studio working on new music and leaking tracks for the past few months. She was lucky. Many are not given the time to develop a sound before they are thrown into the deep end in the hope of grabbing a quick buck.
You may ask, “Why does he give a sh*t?”
It is because I firmly believe that music is in one of the strongest places it has ever been in and this is despite the fact that it has suffered the most out of any art form from the behavioural shift the internet caused.
Even if you do not necessarily agree with me, how does it make any sense that it could be in a much worse place than the past? Technology has improved. Instruments have improved. Engineering has improved. Sound quality has improved. We are more self aware and understanding of sounds and influences. The demise of mammoth record labels means we have music much closer to the artist’s vision than in the past. Industry bureaucracy has been diluted, leading to more collaborations than ever before. People no longer listen to only one type of music. Genres are all over the place so that everyday new sounds and styles are being created. We are aware of music from around the world in a way that was impossible pre-internet. Experimentation is rife.
How could the final product be worse than in the past?
This article is not about blaming anyone or anything. Nothing is going to change the environment that our artists have to work in. It is merely stating the importance of cutting our modern artists some slack before making blanket statements like: "There are no great artists any more."
If you liked this, check out these other articles by Rory
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